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Belligerent cities need to strike for a new deal

birmingham councilCity Deals – the vehicle for improving growth prospects – are heralded by government as a radical power shift.  However, are they?  City deals merely promise negotiated freedoms within a narrow scope of orthodox ‘rising tide will lift all boats’ economic development.  They will not address cuts to local government and they maintain the same economic boom-goggling narrative which has failed many places and people.

So this is why we need to see more belligerent cities.  A belligerence which tells truth to power and stops playing the Whitehall, town hall horse-trading.  Cities must stridently tell Whitehall what they need, and forces Whitehall and it’s departments to reform deeper and faster.

It’s maybe happening.  This letter from large city leaders to Eric Pickles on 18th of December and a subsequent letter in January to the prime minister from the newly formed Core City cabinet, indicate a growing anger at the uncertain future for our cities and local government more broadly.

Of course, We must play the game.  Cities and wider local government should grab the opportunity offered by the city deal process.  And it would be helpful, as Anna Turley from IPPR North blogs, if they were to be extended to cover all local authorities (at present they only cover the 8 core cities and 20 other cities- covering 67% of the English population). But we must be aware of their limitations and maintain a good dose of scepticism about them.

The government needs to be reminded that cities and local government are on the frontline in dealing with austerity  and poverty, have huge pressures of public service demand. But they remain beholden to a Whitehall and a centralism which offers an ingrained paternalistic attitude to cities and local government.  A centralism which – despite the stated ‘radical power shift’ – is increasingly spatially blind, departmentally siloed, treasury driven, biased to the haves and not the have-nots, and more concerned with UK PLC and the City, than with local economies, supporting local investment, local government and local places.

In terms of the city deal negotiations, the cards are stacked in favour of Whitehall.  On the one hand there is a dominant Whitehall machinery and process, which has control and capacity.  On the other, there is often cash and capacity-strapped local government, whose bargaining position is often only as strong as the Whitehall machinery and process allows.
We also need to get belligerent over Whitehall confusion.  How do city deals link with public service reform, LEPs and/or the Heseltine review?  Its not good enough to just assume cities will make sense of it.

However, above all, we need better fairness in the first place.  It is not good enough passing some power and responsibility to local areas through city deals, without more national fairness and level playing field to begin with.  So we require a reform of the prevailing national economic and social policy. We need a significant national economic plan, which spatially stewards the economy away from the existing haves and towards the have-nots. This requires central action where national economic fairness and inclusion is a first step priority.  That is the sound basis to a real ‘radical power shift’ to cities and local government.

At the end of the day, the city deal process is taking place with a context of huge power and capacity imbalances and is fettered as a result.  It’s hampered by a centralist Whitehall, cuts, traditional economic orthodoxies and operates within a national picture of growing inequality and poverty.  Cities and local government need to both challenge this process and the context it sits within.  A spirit of belligerence is key.

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Ged Parker
Ged Parker
11 years ago

I too find it pointless debating the merits or otherwise of piecemeal initiatives such as this without a comprehensive constitutional settlement for local government, greater than those given to Scotland and Wales. To illustrate what I mean I want to swap the meagre £1,400 I pay to my local council with the £30,000 + I pay to the centre

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